A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, with the Crew Dragon capsule, is launched at Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida, US, April 23 2021. Picture: REUTERS/JOE SKIPPER
A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, with the Crew Dragon capsule, is launched at Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida, US, April 23 2021. Picture: REUTERS/JOE SKIPPER

Dallas — Four astronauts have rumbled aloft on a SpaceX rocket bound for the International Space Station (ISS), in the company’s first crewed trip with previously flown equipment.

The Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon capsule lifted off from Kennedy Space Center in Florida at 5.49am US East Coast time on Friday. The astronauts on the flight, which is SpaceX’s second regular mission to the ISS under Nasa’s Commercial Crew Programme, are scheduled to dock early on Saturday with the orbiting lab.

The voyage, on equipment that has flown before, marks another milestone in human space travel and furthers SpaceX’s success at pioneering re-usability in the launch business. Founder Elon Musk has championed the goal of designing spacecraft for multiple missions as the only practical and economical method to lower launch costs and expand human exploration — specifically to Mars.

“Flight-proven rockets” and capsules have demonstrated their ability, Musk said on Thursday on a webcast with Peter Diamandis, creator of the XPrize Foundation and a fellow space enthusiast.

“Do you want to be on the first flight of the aircraft when it comes out of the factory or do you want to be on a later flight?” Musk said. “It should be, on balance, better” with each flight, he said.

Earlier use

The Dragon capsule on Friday’s mission took two astronauts to and from the ISS last year on SpaceX’s first crewed test flight for Nasa. The Falcon 9 rocket on the latest flight last flew in November to deliver four astronauts to the ISS for SpaceX’s first regular ferry trip for Nasa, a mission known as Crew-1.

On April 28, SpaceX is scheduled to bring back the four crew members from the November flight, with a splashdown off the Florida coast. The company’s next mission to the station is tentatively set for October.

Last year, Nasa agreed to allow its ISS crew rotations to be conducted on previously flown equipment.

“I could not be more proud of the Commercial Crew Programme, the SpaceX and Nasa teams, and what they’ve been able to do to enable reliable, safe, effective transportation to and from space,” Nasa acting administrator Steve Jurczyk said on Wednesday at a briefing in Florida.

‘How far’

SpaceX has flown another of its Falcon 9 rockets nine times without people, and its Dragon capsule is certified for as many as five flights. The California-based company is keen to learn how many times a Falcon 9 can fly, though its crewed launches won’t be part of those tests.

“We’re pushing that for non-human missions,” Benji Reed, SpaceX’s senior director of human space flight, said at an April 20 briefing. “We want to see how far we can go.”

The Nasa Crew-2 mission is commanded by Shane Kimbrough, a retired US Army colonel and helicopter pilot, who is taking his third trip to space. The crew is expected to return to Earth in late October.

Three other astronauts are on board:

  • Pilot Megan McArthur, an oceanographer selected by Nasa as an astronaut in 2000. She flew on the final mission to service the Hubble Space Telescope in May 2009. McArthur is married to Bob Behnken, who flew on the same Dragon vehicle during SpaceX’s last test flight for Nasa to the space station. 

  • Mission specialist Akihiko Hoshide, an astronaut from the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, who has flown to space twice, in 2008 and 2012.

  • Thomas Pesquet, a former Air France pilot who joined the European Space Agency as an astronaut in 2009. Pesquet, a native of Rouen, France, spent six months aboard the ISS from November 2016 to June 2017.

The Commercial Crew Programme is a keystone of Nasa’s effort to contract with private companies where possible for astronaut and cargo transport, as well as other services.

In 2014, Nasa awarded SpaceX and Boeing a combined $6.8bn in contracts to revive the US’s ability to fly to the orbiting lab without buying seats on Russian Soyuz capsules. A second test flight of Boeing’s Starliner vehicle, without a crew, is set for later this year after a botched mission in December 2019.

Musk founded SpaceX in 2002 with the ultimate goal of enabling people to live on other planets, and Nasa has been a key partner and customer. A cargo version of SpaceX’s Dragon capsule makes regular runs to the ISS.

Bloomberg News. For more articles like this, please visit bloomberg.com

Would you like to comment on this article or view other readers' comments?
Register (it’s quick and free) or sign in now.

Speech Bubbles

Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.